a curiously Platonic little 12th-century Russian sermon
Before Russia was Russia, it was Rus (kinda rhymes with “noose”), and around the turn of the millenium, Rus was terribly busy: it got politically unified (it used to be Mongols and bears), invented and disseminated the Cyrillic alphabet, gained literacy, began frantically translating Greek and Latin texts, and converted to Christianity (from a sort of rural paganism) all at once. The next few centuries show a wild set of “literary” reactions to these belated, speedy changes. In the 12th century, the metropolitan of Kiev, a devout Christian and accomplished rhetor named Ilarion, delivered a sermon in order to oppose the Law of Moses with the Grace of Christ.
Binary oppositions abound in this sermon, and Ilarion subordinates each pair to his larger schematic paradigm: the “shadow” and the “Truth” become metaphors for Law and Grace, as do “things which are on earth” and “things which are in heaven,” bondage and freedom, the mutually illuminating parables of Hagar and Sarah, and even the Platonic “candlelight” and “sunlight.” One of Ilarion’s favorite binaries is the “justification” of Jewish Law as it opposes the “salvation” of Christian Grace. It would seem that for Ilarion, justification is a sort of earthly, collective attempt on the part of the Jews to “save” each other through their covenant, their tradition, and their holy writings, rather than through an individual and direct communion with God. Since the Law only governs man’s actions in this realm, the Jewish effort to maintain it must be based in community and interpretation. The Christian capacity to attain Grace, however, seems to transcend symbolic readings. Ilarion’s metaphors should be digested literally by his listeners, just as the miracles he describes do not symbolize but rather embody the holy acts of Christ. “Justification,” the practice enacted by the Jews upon their Law, that is, the practice of interpreting the written word and gleaning earthly knowledge from it, is an unnecessary step for Ilarion: “with the Truth and Grace Christians are not justified but are saved.” His message leaves his lips and works upon his listeners without explication.
Given his illustration of the justification/salvation opposition and its various properties and consequences, what can we make of the numerous instances of interpretation Ilarion enacts within his own sermon? Why should we understand these moments of Biblical interpretation as exempt from the label “justification,” albeit Ilarion’s own brand, replete with his own teleology, his own faith and his own agenda? Some of these textual interpretations are more explicit than others; in section (33) he says:
Thus it was meet that Grace and Truth should shine forth upon new people. In the words of the Lord: “Men do not pour new wine”—the teaching of Grace—“into old skins”—Jewry, old and decrepit—“else the skins will burst and the wine will spill over.”
Ilarion literally inserts his commentary into this citation from the Gospels; he is interpreting here on a rather minute level. We see him explicate the enigmatic words of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (this wine-and-skins line is repeated several times in the Gospels) to further his own argument: this is a close reading! He justifies his sermon with the words of the Apostles; he justifies the words of the Apostles with his sermon. Ilarion is treating the text of the New Testament as Law, rather than as Grace.
Okay, what? How can we justify Ilarion’s practice of justification? I would like to suggest that an answer to this puzzle lies in the difference between spoken and written language. The kind of “justification” found in Jewish Law is a recorded one, embedded in sacred commentary upon sacred commentary ad infinitem. The injunction to interpret, to justify, and to record those readings so that others may comment upon them is specifically a gesture towards posterity on earth. But Ilarion’s sermon is a spoken genre. His readings of the Bible are rhetorical rather than hermeneutic. His words are not a historic occasion but are instead intended to persuade those whose ears they reach in their own lifetime, that is, before their own deaths, before their ascents to heaven. He is not concerned with maintaining and justifying a people, but rather with saving individuals, granting them personally a means to attain Grace.
Incredibly, the trajectory of my musings so far almost exactly mirrors the arc of my experience reading Plato’s Republic. I feel that these last lines I have written in defense of Ilarion’s use of textual interpretation could be said about Socrates in Book 10. How ugly and wrong it feels to me when Plato’s protagonist coldly rails against metaphor and tragedy in Book 3; how strange it feels to reach Book 10, where in a discussion of the soul, Socrates employs the very literary device he scorns; and then, upon reflection, how sweet the punch: this myth of Er is metaphor showing its potential to “save” each soul, if well employed, if well attended to. I don’t know what else to do with this parallel: of course dialogue is a spoken genre, too– but then, so is tragedy, and we lose footing quickly here, and these twin textual practices, metaphor and hermeneutics, are the most basic, the most dangerous, the most impossible not to employ. Perhaps Kierkegaard is right when he calls Socrates an early type of Christ, and now we’re trailing off. Talk to me, folks–